- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

CAIRO | Seeking no less than a restart of relations with the Islamic world, President Obama on Thursday conceded past wrongs, quoted from the Koran and even invoked his full name - all in an appeal to Muslims from Indonesia to Morocco to unite around common ideals of rights, freedom, security and respect.

In calling for a “new beginning,” he singled out some Islamic nations as examples of religious tolerance, he delivered a stern lecture to Holocaust deniers, doubters of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Palestinian terrorists, and he harked back to the glory of Islamic civilizations through the centuries.

Using his 55-minute speech - the longest of his young presidency - to about 2,500 people at Cairo University, Mr. Obama said that rather than a fundamental disagreement, the U.S. has always held deep respect for and good will toward Islam, dating back to one of the nation’s earliest documents, the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli.

“We have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world; we seek a world where extremists no longer threaten our people and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God’s children are respected,” Mr. Obama said.

The speech, which made good on a campaign promise to deliver a major address from a Muslim country, was translated into 13 languages and spread via e-mail and Web video around the globe - an effort to turn technology, which has been a powerful recruiting tool for radical Islamic terrorists, to a tool of outreach and influence for the U.S.

The president weighed in on tough issues that divide the Middle East, saying the U.S. “does not accept the legitimacy” of Israel’s settlements in Palestinian territory and all but accusing Palestinians of cowardice when terrorists “shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus.”

He also balanced acknowledgment of the U.S. role in the 1953 coup that toppled Iran’s democratically elected government with a call for Iran to forgo developing nuclear weapons, saying pursuing atomic arms could spark “a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”

Mr. Obama also avoided some thorny subjects. He did not use the word “terrorist,” and he did not take on the human rights record of his host country, Egypt. He never mentioned Osama bin Laden, though he did mention al Qaeda three times, saying in no uncertain terms that the terrorist organization was responsible for killing nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

“These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with,” Mr. Obama said.

He warned that allowing differences to define relations between Muslims and the United States gives ammunition to a small but potent minority of violent extremists.

Radical Palestinian groups called the speech an attempt to “mislead” the world. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the president needs to go beyond “talking, speech and slogans.” Israel’s new government generally praised the sentiments but was silent on Mr. Obama’s call for action to halt settlements.

In the U.S., Republicans and Democrats said Mr. Obama’s speech was thoughtful, though some Republicans worried that Mr. Obama was making a mistake by equating calls for action between Israel and Palestinians.

As the Obama administration had hoped, reaction to the speech poured in from around the world on blogs and social networking Internet sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and through mobile phone text messages.

“President Obama said what I want to hear. I had tears in my eyes, because his words touched my soul. I believed every words he said and I am sure he is sincere, but we wants action not words. We want to feel that America is friend to us not against us. We want to be treated fairly by you. Thanks,” read a text from Saudi Arabia, one of both positive and negative text-message reactions posted on the Web by the U.S. State Department.

Michael Kagan, a law professor at the American University in Cairo, wrote on his personal blog Thursday that the speech showed “a way of engaging with the Arab/Muslim world without being an apologist.”

He added that the speech lacked specifics on several instances and said Mr. Obama “will lose credit for tough talk because he wasn’t willing to be tough on his host,” Egypt, where activists are fighting for democracy.

Even as he acknowledged American misconceptions and mistakes, Mr. Obama called on Muslims to respect U.S. contributions to civilization.

“Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known,” Mr. Obama said.

“We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words - within our borders and around the world.”

Left out of Mr. Obama’s speech was any specific reference to his predecessor, President George W. Bush, though in many ways the entire speech was an explanation of U.S. relations with the Muslim world over the past eight years.

Confronting the image of the United States as an occupying force, Mr. Obama said he does not want to keep troops in Afghanistan or establish permanent military bases.

He touted his administration’s plan to increase aid to Pakistan and said the “war of choice” in Iraq would be winding to a close as he removes all combat troops by the end of next summer, a promise that drew loud applause. He added that Iraqis are better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

The audience in the auditorium helped punctuate the speech with applause, and at one point an exuberant attendee shouted, “We love you.” The president replied with a simple, “Thank you.”

However, there seemed to be a bit of a disconnect as Mr. Obama would pause on expected applause lines and then would need to wait for translation before the audience reacted.

Mr. Obama offered up his own heritage, invoking his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, and noting that as a Christian boy living in Indonesia he heard the calls to prayer. He also said his father “came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims.”

“I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed,” said the president, whose father was from Kenya and mother from Kansas. “My personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores - that includes nearly 7 million American Muslims in our country today who enjoy incomes and education that are higher than average.”

He opened with a traditional Muslim greeting, “Assalaamu alaykum,” and said Islam is a faith founded in peace.

As he did during a visit to Turkey in April, Mr. Obama said young people hold the key to change and “the ability to remake this world.”

Foremost among his calls to the Muslim world for change was a plea for women’s rights and religious tolerance, and he issued a harsh critique of the way some adherents seem to practice their faith: “Among some Muslims, there’s a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of somebody else’s faith,” the president said.

Before his speech, Mr. Obama met privately with President Hosni Mubarak. After the two men emerged, Mr. Mubarak told reporters that they spoke about Iran and other problems in the region “candidly and frankly without any reservation.”

Mr. Obama also visited a centuries-old mosque that is one of the most used in the city and toured the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx.

He left Thursday evening for Dresden, Germany, where he will hold bilateral meetings with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday before visiting the Buchenwald concentration camp and greeting wounded troops at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. military hospital that receives troops wounded in the war on terror.

On Saturday, Mr. Obama participates in the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landing at Normandy in France.

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